In recent days, the international propaganda operation fueled by classified documents stolen by Edward Snowden has taken aim at Australia, which is a longstanding member of the Anglosphere’s “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance. Allegations that the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), the local SIGINT agency that partners with NSA, has spied on Indonesia, including its political leadership, have caused heartburn in Jakarta.
Indonesia has recalled its ambassador from Canberra and cancelled joint military exercises. Of perhaps greater significance, the Snowden revelations have placed anti-terrorism cooperation between the two countries in jeopardy, a major problem given how much Australia worries about any rise in violent extremism in its huge neighbor to the North. There is more than a little hokum and faux outrage in Jakarta’s reaction, not least because Indonesia spies on Australia too, including in SIGINT, but the political damage inflicted to date seems real, if not likely permanent.
Yet even short-term damage can cause serious pain to both sides. Not least because Indonesia is highly dependent on Australian intelligence, especially ASD SIGINT, to keep its domestic extremists and terrorists in check. This is causing serious worry in the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO), the country’s domestic security service, charged with counterterrorism and counterintelligence. The real world of espionage is far more complicated than the cheap moralizing of Planet Greenwald would have you believe. Just how messy this all is, and why the Snowden damage matters, is conveyed nicely in a detailed report in The Australian, a Sydney daily, which I reproduce here:
More than 300 convicted terrorists will be released from Indonesian prisons in the next 12 months, posing a renewed terror threat to both Australians and Indonesians at a time when the spy scandal threatens to derail intelligence co-operation between the two countries.
However, as the fallout from the Snowden leaks intensified, with Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono announcing the suspension of some intelligence sharing arrangements, there was no immediate indication which areas of counter-terror co-operation would be effected. Dr Yudhoyono announced yesterday co-operation with Australia would be downgraded across a range of areas – mainly people-smuggling – but also military co-operation and intelligence sharing.
“I will instruct (officials) to halt some co-operation that is called exchange of information and exchange of intelligence among our two countries,” the Indonesian President said.
The announcement represented a major escalation in the spy scandal and came at a time when ASIO is deeply concerned by the looming release of the terrorists whose sentences are up. ASIO fears the release of the militants – including some involved in the bomb attacks on Australians in Jakarta and Bali between 2002 and 2009 – will re-energise terror networks that had been largely defeated thanks to joint intelligence and police co-operation between Australia and Indonesia.
Australia has 30 Australian Federal Police officers based in Indonesia working with local authorities, mainly on anti-people-smuggling and counter terrorism operations. It is understood about a dozen of those officers work on people-smuggling, a relatively low-order issue for Jakarta and one where co-operation may be downgraded with little cost to Indonesia but considerable pain to Australia, which in the past two months has ramped up its efforts to disrupt smuggling ventures.
But insiders say there could not be a worse time to suspend intelligence co-operation between the two countries because it would limit the ability of Australian and Indonesian agencies to monitor those released prisoners, some of whom are likely to resume jihadist activities against their own citizens and Western tourists.
The joint counter-terror co-operation between the two countries, which has been the key to capturing the Bali bombers and dismantling the deadly Jeemah Islamiah terror network, appeared to be under threat last night after the chief of Indonesia’s national intelligence agency BIN, Marciano Norman, was called to the Presidential Palace to discuss the security co-operation ramifications of the Australian crisis.
Australian intelligence, including information gleaned by the Australian Signals Directorate, remains a key part of Indonesia’s war against Islamic extremism. One insider said yesterday Indonesia’s fight against Islamic extremism had always relied “enormously” on intelligence supplied by Australian agencies – including the ASD, the successor of the Defence Signals Directorate, which allegedly intercepted Dr Yudhoyono’s mobile phone.
“The arrest and prosecution of the original Bali bombers couldn’t have happened without Australian intelligence support,” The Australian was told. “When (then prime minister John) Howard went up three or four days after the bombing he took with them the heads of the intelligence agencies and said, ‘You’ve got carte blanche’.”
Others say that if this sort of co-operation was suspended as a result of the spy scandal, it would create a law enforcement vacuum and an opportunity for Islamic extremists to regroup and once again target Indonesians and Australians in Bali and Jakarta.
ASIO fears Indonesian terror groups, including JI, could become more active when about 300 out of 830 convicted and imprisoned terrorists are released over the next year having served their sentences for crimes carried out over the past decade. It is feared that many of terrorists are likely to resume extremist activities, especially because Indonesian prisons are considered to be hothouses for extremist teachings.
“The impending release of terrorist detainees from Indonesian prisons, a spike of which is expected to occur in 2014 is likely to increase this (terror) threat,” ASIO warned in its recently released annual report. “Many of the individuals scheduled to be released in this period have undertaken terrorist training or have been linked to, or involved in, bombings against either Western of local targets.
“Their release is likely to inject significant capability into extremist networks. The expertise and anti-Western credentials of some individuals have the potential to refocus and reinvigorate currently diffuse and relatively unsophisticated extremist networks.”
Greg Barton, an Indonesia expert at Melbourne’s Monash University, said the release of so many prisoners in one year was ‘a big concern”. “While we don’t have a clear picture of recidivism rates, it is safe to assume that some will still be quite sympathetic to (extremism) and that some will go back to operations,” Professor Barton told The Australian.
In recent years Jakarta’s counter-terrorism capacity had become more sophisticated and other countries, including the US, were beginning to play a greater role in assisting the Indonesians, reducing Jakarta’s dependence on Australian intelligence and expertise.
But Australia was still Indonesia’s main partner in the fight against local extremism. In addition to intelligence about extremists, Australia is understood to have gifted the Indonesians a raft of equipment, such as long-range surveillance microphones, cameras and night vision equipment. Australia also supplies technical expertise in areas such as computer exploitation, for example extracting information from laptops seized from extremists.
One wonders how well Indonesian intelligence will fare against extremists and terrorists without the reporting and technical assistance of the ASD. I’m afraid we’re going to find out the hard way. Let’s hope those 300 soon-to-be released Indonesian terrorists have spent their time in prison learning and embracing that “jihad is love” (as non-violent Salafis like to put it), because otherwise bad things seem sure to follow.